New Pentagon rules may change war reporting

Rob Lever
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New guidelines in a US military war manual may change the rules for reporters covering conflicts, but it remains to be seen how the Pentagon will implement the new policy

New guidelines in a US military war manual may change the rules for reporters covering conflicts, but it remains to be seen how the Pentagon will implement the new policy (AFP Photo/Eric Feferberg)

Washington (AFP) - New guidelines in a US military war manual may change the rules for reporters covering conflicts, but it remains to be seen how the Pentagon will implement the new policy.

Media watchdog organizations have expressed shock and concern that reporters could be treated as "unprivileged belligerents" under the Defense Department's new Law of War Manual, which provides guidance for US commanders and others.

The Pentagon has insisted it "supports and respects the vital work that journalists perform." But some media advocates see too much room for maneuver in the guidelines.

Reporters Without Borders joined other organizations this past week in expressing concern, sending a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter urging consultations on the issue.

In the letter to the US defense chief, the Paris-based group said it was concerned that journalists could lose "privileged" status in combat areas merely by "the relaying of information," which, according to the guidelines, "could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities."

"This terminology leaves too much room for interpretation, putting journalists in a dangerous situation," said the group's secretary general, Christophe Deloire, in the letter.

Deloire said governments "have a duty to protect journalists covering armed conflicts" under a United Nations resolution and that his group was "disappointed that this manual takes a step in the wrong direction."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed similar concerns last month, saying the Pentagon "has produced a self-serving document that is unfortunately helping to lower the bar" for press freedom.

And The New York Times, in an editorial this month, called for the repeal of provisions affecting media, warning they would make the work of journalists covering armed conflict "more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship."

The newspaper said the rules could put reporters in the same category assigned to guerrillas or members of Al-Qaeda.

Treating journalists as potential spies, the newspaper argued, feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments that attempt to discredit Western journalists by falsely accusing them of espionage.

- Constitutional issues -

Heidi Kitrosser, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota who follows issues of free speech and government secrecy, agreed on the potential for curbing press freedoms.

"The breadth of the manual's language and its potential applications is alarming," she told AFP.

She added that the shift "is troubling for its conflict with US constitutional principles and also for its potential invoking by authoritarian regimes to support their own suppression of journalists."

Steven Aftergood, who monitors US government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said implementation of the policy will be critical, noting that it merely codifies existing practices and laws.

"A lot depends on how those laws are interpreted in practice," he told AFP.

"What seems clear is that extreme positions on either side of the issue are mistaken. In other words, total suppression of news coverage of war is obviously unacceptable. But so is the notion of absolute press freedom."

Aftergood added "there are likely to be legitimate battlefield secrets that the military is within its rights to protect. But how to navigate between those extreme positions is less clear and is hard to state in the abstract."

"In the US, at least, constitutional values should lead us to favor freedom of the press," he said.

The Pentagon said some elements of the manual may have been misconstrued, but that it was willing to work to allay any concerns.

"We've begun reaching out to leaders in the media to initiate a dialog on the manual. We expect this discussion will begin soon," Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers told AFP.

In an earlier email, Sowers said that the Pentagon stands "by the legal accuracy of the manual."

"But the fact that it is being construed in the way it has been is something of major concern to us."